By David Valenzuela
NEW YORK – The little-known story of Spanish migrants who settled in Lower Manhattan in the 19th century and by the mid-20th century had formed one of New York’s most deeply rooted communities is the subject of a new documentary titled “Little Spain.”
In the film, which debuted Wednesday at theaters in New York City, Spanish director Artur Balder traces the journey of those who left Spain in search of a better life in the Big Apple.
The focal point of the documentary is 14th Street in Manhattan, the former heart of the city’s Spanish community.
“Almost no one knows that there was a “Little Spain’ in Manhattan, just like there’s a ‘Little Italy.’ That’s what’s fascinating,” Balder, who is also a journalist and writer, said.
The filmmaker acknowledged that he stumbled upon this story one day “by chance” after hearing about the Spanish Benevolent Society, better known as “La Nacional,” a social club that still exists on W. 14th St., between 7th and 8th Avenues.
“I learned a lot (by sifting through) La Nacional’s fascinating archives and I realized that what I had in front of me was the bone of an enormous dinosaur,” said Balder, who subsequently “scraped around” to gather more details.
The fruit of that effort is a documentary that looks back at the founding of La Nacional in 1868 and the uptick in migration from the Iberian nation following Spain’s loss of Cuba in 1898, through to the Spanish “golden age” in New York after Spain’s 1936-1939 Civil War and finally the community’s sharp decline in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“The first wave of Spaniards were merchant marines who arrived at the Chelsea docks, controlled by Irish and Italians,” the director said, adding that the Spanish integrated well into their new environment and were given work.
Well into the 1960s, Spanish was spoken on 14th St.: “There was one Spanish establishment after another, and not only very famous restaurants like ‘El Coruña,’ ‘La Bilbaina’ and “Cafe Madrid,’ but also Spanish bookstores and shops selling Spanish-style textiles.”
One of the film’s highlights is footage of what for years was the most popular celebration in the Spanish community, the Santiago Apostol (St. James Day) festival but which “died out” in the early 1990s due to the steady exodus of Spaniards from that part of the city. EFE